Tuesday, April 14, 2015

"Leaning on the Everlasting Arms" -- a bluegrass gospel song for this week's Prairieland Strings session

A month or two ago, Dan brought in some sheet music/dulcimer tab he found online for "Leaning on the Everlasting Arms," a fine old gospel tune in the public domain. Written in 1887 by Anthony J. Showalter and Elisha Hoffman, it has become a bluegrass gospel standard. Let's play it at this week's "third Thursday" session of the Prairieland Strings, from 7 to 9 p.m. at Atonement Lutheran Church, 2800 West Jefferson.

Don't forget the "Fake It Till You Make It" workshop on playing in jam sessions from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday, April 18, in the barn at Clayville Historic Stagecoach Stop, Ill. 125, Pleasant Plains.

That tab that Dan brought us is available on the EverythingDulcimer.com website. Link here for a PDF file. If your computer is squirrelly about opening PDF documents, go to http://www.everythingdulcimer.com/, open the Tablature menu and scroll down the directory to "Leaning on the Everlasting Arms." The tab you want is by Robert Sutton (and it's easy to find since his is the only tab for that title)!

If you don't recall what it sounds like, we can fix that right now. Here's a pretty good bluegrass version on YouTube. It features the East Tennessee State University Bluegrass Pride Band with guest vocalist Joshua Argo (an ETSU bluegrass student) at the Bluegrass On Broad festival in Kingsport, Tenn.

Notice how some of the group sing "Leaning on Jesus" in harmony while the others are just singing "Lean-ing" in the chorus. In our sheet music, the phrase is written as two half notes. I don't know how you'd write that harmony part in standard notation, but as long as the singers are listening to each other (which is crucial in bluegrass harmony), it all comes together.

"Leaning on the Everlasting Arms" has been around forever (well, at least since 1887), and it's been covered by artists ranging from Iris Dement, Twila Paris and the Gaithers to the Stanley Brothers, Chet Atkins, the Statler Brothers, George Jones, Andy Griffith, the Dillards, the Louvin Brothers, the Sons of the Pioneers, Al Green, Mahalia Jackson and the Five Blind Boys of Mississippi. They're all on YouTube, along with many others.

The song works in a wide variety of musical styles. Here's Barry Wilson singing it in 2008 at Kansas City Baptist Temple:

And here's a clip from the 1943 movie "A Human Comedy," showing GIs singing it on a World War II troop train.

According to Wikipedia, Showalter thought of the melody and refrain when he was comforting two of his students whose wives had recently died. "When writing letters of consolation, Showalter was inspired by the phrase in the Book of Deuteronomy 33:27 "The eternal God is thy refuge, and underneath are the everlasting arms." He asked Hoffman to do the rest of the lyrics.

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